Saturday, 2 October 2010

Mindfulness is not a self-improvement tool...

I've written a piece on mindfulness for the School of Life blog...

"Expecting meditation to 'make me better', perhaps based on the results of clinical studies, may well sabotage the practice, whose benefit comes partly from letting go of the tendency to grasp for results..." Read the full piece here...

Friday, 1 October 2010

Mindfulness News - September 2010

All the last month's news stories from the Mindful Manifesto website:

29 Troops PTSD may be reduced with mind fitness (mindfulness training)

28 Mindfulness Meditation Helps Multiple Sclerosis Patients, Researchers Say
23 The Neuroscience of Happiness - excellent descriptions of practices to develop contentment from Buddha's Brain author Rick Hanson.
20 Wellington college extends 'happiness lessons' to parents. Classes to include mindfulness training
16 What Everyone Should Know about How Stress Affects the Brain, and the impact of mindfulness
New study shows that even brief mindfulness training can reduce people's sense of pain
6 Mindfulness skills useful in addressing ADHD
Round-up of the latest mindfulness research studies from Mindful Experience.

Friday, 17 September 2010

The language of mindfulness: Is right speech hampered by English?

I've been doing quite a lot of media interviews for The Mindful Manifesto over the last few weeks, and I'm consistently struck by how difficult it is to explain what mindfulness actually is, especially to people who haven't yet had a taste of meditation practice. The most oft-quoted definition is Jon Kabat Zinn's 'paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present momemt, and non-judgementally', but I suspect that for most people, that doesn't make it any clearer. In which particular way? How would you pay attention by accident? What's the present moment? What do you mean by judgement here? I don't claim to have managed any better - in fact, I'm not all that keen on one-line definitions of mindfulness - I don't think you can reduce something as profound as meditation to just a few simple words.

Nevertheless, we do need a way to explain mindfulness in order to help people approach it. One short-hand I use is the ABC model - A is for awareness, B is for being with, and C is for choice. We pay attention to what's going on and stay with our experience long enough to make good choices about what to do rather than being always driven by habit and impulse. I also tend to use analogies with physical healthcare - we all know that brushing our teeth is good for our teeth, and most of us manage it once or twice a day, as a matter of course - so, meditation is mental health care just as teeth-brushing is dental healthcare.

And we all know that exercising the body can help keep us physically fit - similarly, meditation is a form of mind training. There is a danger of reinforcing a mind-body duality here, as of course anything that impacts the body also impacts the mind and vice versa, but it probably isn't skilful to muddy the waters with that when you've only got 3 minutes on local radio - possibly also not the best time to start expounding the tenets of the 'mind-only' school approach to experience.

In any case, all these descriptions are limited, inadequate ways of attempting to transmit something with a depth which language can't quite express. No wonder there is a noble tradition of realised masters who decide to remain silent - indeed, even the Buddha at first supposedly declined to teach, because he felt that he would not be understood. Still, we need language if we are to be able to encourage people to explore meditation for themselves, and we have to do this using concepts - words are the fingers pointing at the moon, it is said - useful, as long as we don't mistake them for the moon itself, which can only be perceived directly.

I suspect we are hamstrung partly because our language itself has evolved from a culture that has little experience of meditation practice. I don't speak Tibetan, Pali or Sanskrit, but I have had a glimpse of the vast array of words that can be used to describe meditative experiences. Words whose very subtle nuance must be easily lost when translated into English or other Western languages. Our word meditation is a good example - what does it actually mean? Mindfulness meditation? Mantra recitation? Prayer? Having a good think? Chances are it means all these things and more to different people - hence it's all too easy to perpetuate misconceptions about the practices - we don't even know what name(s) to give them.

When we decide to challenge our unconsciously mindless language, we face an uphill task. I try to watch my language (as a writer, it's my job) but I frequently find words slipping out of my mouth that undermine my  mindfulness -  pehaps they're inaccurately absolute  ('I feel completely exhausted' 'I'm totally convinced'), invite speediness ('Go for it!'), unnecessarily negative ('I'm terribly upset!), or take us out of the present moment (I'm really looking forward to that!) One of the main linking verbs in English is 'to do' (I don't like it, Do you want some tea?), so it seems we can't avoid using language that tends to perpetuate the sense of always needing to take action - whereas it takes (me, anyway) conscious effort to employ words that reflect a sense of spaciousness, of patience or middle ground. I think this is important to recognise, because if we can recognise it, we can begin the long work of evolving a kind of 'right speech' that can support a more meditative way of life, work that will no doubt take many generations, even once it is is consciously embarked upon.

The psychoanalyst Eric Berne used to talk about life scripts - our tendency to unconsciously follow patterns set for us by our parents and our surroundings, and which we are doomed to play out, unless we can wake up to them. Mindfulness practice is one tool we can use to begin to notice and let go of those scripts and start to choose more consciously how our lives will be. Scripts are made of words, so if we want to change the scripts, perhaps we need to look at changing our words...

Saturday, 21 August 2010

A word on the scientific evaluation of mindfulness...

Barely a day goes past without some new study suggesting that mindfulness has beneficial effects - on mental health, the management of physical conditions, brain function, attention skills, and a wide range of other markers of reduced suffering and increased well-being. This research is wonderful - it offers a scientific basis for what has been known by practitioners of meditation for thousands of years - that it can help us live a happier existence. There is much more of this work to be done - to tease out which elements of mindfulness courses are the most useful, for example, to replicate existing results, and to test its application in more and more different conditions.

And yet, there is a danger - these studies can easily be interpreted to suggest that mindfulness is a successful 'technique', a tool that can be delivered in the same way as other health interventions - like a course of antibiotics say - and which if we just go through the motions of applying it, will 'improve' us. Not so. Mindfulness, as Jon Kabat Zinn recently said, is a way of being, a way of seeing, and a way of knowing. More than that, it is a way of being, seeing and knowing that, to produce results, requires us to let go of trying to get results. It requires a change of attitude, a shift in perception.. Through mindfulness meditation, we may end up feeling better, but that's only likely to happen when we stop trying to feel better - when we are able to give up the struggle for things to be other than they are and pay attention to our experience, as it is, right now, in the moment.We may also take action, of course, but we endeavour not to attach to the future result of that action. We do the best we can, but we don't expect success, for expectation creates suffering. When we expect, it is more difficult to be mindful - we are living in the future, not the present.

This can only really be understood through the experience of practice - you can't get it from looking at the results of a scientific trial. Indeed, on the face of it, the results of scientific trials appear to show that applied mindfulness will bring greater pleasure - all you have to do, it would appear, is apply mindfulness to reap the reward. But if we feel better through practice, it is usually through a deepening of meaning, rather than a heightening of pleasure. That's why the scientific method alone is not enough - we need not just a third person observational approach to testing mindfulness, but a subjective first person engagement with the practice, with all its depth, all its complexity, all its paradoxes, all its subtlety.

Scientific research tends to get headlines for its results. But by focusing on results rather than process, research studies can make mindfulness appear like a self-improvement technique, when actually it is a process of self-letting go. It  it is only in that process of self-letting go that we can come to feel more at peace. We don't reach peace by struggling for it, but by dropping the struggle. Mindfulness is not a quick fix - sorry, it's just not that easy.

It's wonderful that science is validating mindfulness - but in our enthusiasm, let's not get carried away into thinking that this data expresses the full richness of what mindfulness has to offer. The next time a scientific study reveals that mindfulness has led to some desirable health outcome, remember that in the mind of the practitioners studied, it was probably the letting go of the desire for that outcome that led to its fulfillment - and that you might not find that nuance in the paper's write-up, or in the newspaper headlines that report it.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Mindfulness news round-up - July 2010

All the latest mindfulness news stories from the last month...

31 New Study Investigates Mindfulness Meditation for Alcohol Relapse Prevention
31 Meditation boosts reaction time and reduces the need for sleep
20 Mindfulness training study to help military members combat the mental health effects of war.
19 The busy mind on meditation - Brief sessions can help with dealing with deadlines and pain relief
17 Mindful Motherhood Cassandra Vieten reports on her innovative training program offering stress relief to new moms - from the Greater Good Science Centre
16 The Greater Good Guide to Mindfulness - some great examples of settings where mindfulness is making a difference
16 Meditation helps increase attention span
15 Quiet Justice - Mindfulness in the practice of law
15 Mind/body techniques effective for chronic pain
14 Fine interview with Dan Siegel on mindfulness and the brain.
14 Meditation in the lab - good overview of scientific studies on mindfulness
11 Use your brain to relieve pain - more on mindfulness for pain
Meditation rescued me from misanthropy - by Tim Parks (New Statesman)
7  On mindfulness and plain speaking, by Deborah Schoeberlein (Huffington Post)
Mindful eaters less likely to be overweight
How meditation can develop skills in attention and compassion - first results from the shamatha project
'Mind-body' therapy shows promise for fibromyalgia

Sunday, 8 August 2010

On Mindfulness Teaching and Transmission...

It's fantastic to see the current explosion of interest in practising mindfulness meditation. It's been happening in the US for a while, and now here in the UK there is the start of a real recognition that being mindful can make a tangible difference to health and happiness. Largely we can thank science for this - almost every day there is a new study linking meditation practice to health and well-being benefits - in the last month alone we've seen studies linking mindfulness to improved attention, decreased pain perception, PTSD, Parkinson's disease, alcohol relapse prevention, eating disorders and fibromyalgia. These studies have the credibility to convince those who wouldn't take the word of a meditation master - which in this age, is most people.
But there is a potential problem - while most research is carried out on courses taught by experienced guides, the surge in interest will inevitably create demand, and already there are many companies springing up to offer mindfulness training to those who want it, and some of those who are offering to teach have only minimal experience of practice themselves.
In the buddhist tradition, there is a strong emphasis on transmission - the view that meditative insight is passed down from those who have great experience, and can embody the teachings they are presenting. In this way, the practices are not so much taught as modelled - a teacher with little insight will have little to offer their students.
The teachings offered in programmes like mindfulness-based stress reduction are fairly basic (and by that I do not mean to denigrate them). They offer a grounding in sitting meditation, mindful movement and body scan techniques, and have the potential to connect with a very wide audience in a way that an esoteric Tibetan buddhist ritual might not. But even so, the transmission of these techniques won't be effective if the teacher hasn't achieved some depth of understanding of them. And I fear that increasingly, people without sufficient experience will find themselves leading such courses, and that as a result, there will be a lot of bad mindfulness going on. We will see misconceptions like "mindfulness is relaxation", "mindfulness is a self-control technique", "mindfulness is concentration" and so on. Just because science is showing mindfulness works doesn't mean anyone can teach it once they have read about it.
To be clear, I am no meditation master. I have a fairly low level of what mindfulness academics would call 'dispositional mindfulness' - but that's also one reason why I practice and write about the subject. I know it is something I need, and which makes my life better when I am able to embody it. However, I also know that my own understanding (such as it is) has come from some years of consistent practice. And not just a bit of daily practice - it was only when I went on my first 28-day retreat that I began to really get some in-depth insight into what meditation could show me.  I understand that I don't find it easy, and I can empathise with others who feel the same way. At the same time, the more I have practised, and the more deeply, the more I've learnt.

There are some people who can embody mindfulness much more naturally than I can (though if they haven't practised as well, I doubt their ability to teach it to others, as they may not understand the frustrations we low-level practitioners go through!). But what concerns me are those who go on an eight-week course, have a daily practice for a month or two and then decide they are ready to teach, perhaps without undertaking any further study or in-depth retreat. Some may turn out to be great teachers - I fear many may not. There is the potential for a lot of bad mindfulness transmission - and as a result, some very disillusioned students, perhaps who might be put off engaging with the practice altogether. That would be a shame.

I agree with the good people at the Bangor University Centre For Mindfulness Research and Practice, who are resisting the idea of standard regulation for mindfulness teachers. After all - who would set the rules? If it was the usual kind of regulation, we could easily end up with a set of criteria that includes someone with an academic psychology degree and no experiential understanding and excludes, say, The Dalai Lama ("I'm sorry your Holiness, but we need to see a few more CPD credits"). Nevertheless, regulation is embedded in the buddhist system - a new teacher is validated by his teachers, within the context of a practice lineage.

Somehow, we will need to find a way - to recognise that to offer simple meditation instruction does not require the teacher to have undergone the trials of Milarepa, but also that graduation to instructor status requires some basic level of realisation that can be transmitted to the student. Also, that this graduation is approved by senior practitioners who have themselves attained some level of wisdom, and which is not solely dependent on having ticked a number of academic boxes. Basically, we need some sense of a mindfulness teaching lineage that can recongise experiential and not just theoretical attainment. But how to achieve that, when mindfulness seems to be taking root within a mainstream education system that tends to value only academic achievement and which validates students according to intellectual criteria Any suggestions?

Comment on mindfulness and The Mindful Manifesto...

We'd love to hear your comments on The Mindful Manifesto, and on how we can work together to create a more mindful world. What is your own experience of mindfulness? Has it helped you in your life? What are the challenges of practice? What difference could mindfulness make to our society and how can we best create the container for a mindful society? Leave your thoughts, questions and experiences on these topics or any other mindfulness-related issues in the comments thread below...

Saturday, 26 June 2010

The Mindful Enlightenment

I've written a piece for the Face To Faith column in today's Guardian. It's on 21st century enlightenment thinking and how buddhism is developing in the West... You can read it here...
James Shaheen of Tricycle magazine has blogged further on the theme here...

Sunday, 20 June 2010

A week in sport - meditation special

There's been a glut of stories this week linking meditation practice to sporting erformance. It started last Saturday night when ITV commentator Andy Townsend exhorted England's footballers to 'be mindful' several times during their opening world cup match against the USA, and continued in a subsequent Guardian piece reflecting on how England goalkeeper Robert Green might prepare his mind after the howler that led to the USA's goal - sports psychologist Damien Hughes advised Green to "concentrate on counting his breaths to steady himself". In the end, Green wasn't picked for the next match, so had plenty of time on the bench for some sitting meditation while his team-mates laboured through an even less cultured performance.

Meanwhile the LA Times has been reporting that Lakers centre Andrew Bynum has a pre-match meditation routine, inspired by "zen master" coach Phil Jackson. According to Jackson, the most successful coach in NBA finals history: "When players practise what is known as mindfulness - paying attention to what's actually happening - not only do they play better and win more, they also become more attuned to each other." Over on the East Coast, Miami Dolphins player Ricky Williams has gone one step further - he teaches a regular Wednesday night meditation class at Nova Southeastern University. Williams started practising in 2004 - he says finds it particularly helpful before NFL games. And Scottish golf pro George Murray has also been trying to improve his game by meditating. He's been reading Zen Golf, which has been credited with helping Vijay Singh. "It chills me out," says Murray. "I approach every shot as though it has no relevance."

There's plenty of evidence that meditation can create the kind of evenly-hovering attention that enables athletes to be in the zone. With practice, it becomes more possible to ride the waves of emotion that are inevitable during big events and to stay focused on the here and now moment of play, in balance with body, mind and environment. Handy for all of us, and not just during sport.

As for England's chances of progress to the next round of the world cup, the Jackson approach might well be an answer for Fabio Capello, who has already admitted his players' problems are in the mind. So, who's going to tell Wayne Rooney he needs to meditate?

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Mindfulness and the Middle Ages

I've recently finished reading The Selfish Society: How We All Forgot to Love One Another And Made Money Instead, by Sue Gerhardt. The prime focus of her analysis is on the negative impact of current parenting styles - how the development of capitalism led to the cultural reinforcement of child-rearing practices that perpetuate a money-grabbing, 'me' culture, where we fail to acknowledge the benefit of good relationships. Drawing on psychology, neuroscience and history it's a grand, wide-ranging tour through our psychic landscape.

A few pages at the start of chapter 4 struck me more than any other. Describing the rise of the 'social brain' in Europe, Gerhardt references 'the civilising process' described by historian Norbert Elias as leading to an increase in self-awareness during the middle ages - the thesis is that "the medieval brain was in some respects like that of a very young child who lives for the moment and who has not yet developed great self-control", and that the move away from a feudal system towards a world that required more complex social relationships had an impact on people's brains and awareness levels. "As societies became more focused and organised," says Gerhardt, "so too did individual brains."

She doesn't use the word, but it sounds very much like Gerhardt - a meditation practitioner - is highlighting developments in mindfulness. She calls it "a gradual pooling of increased awareness", while she cites the historian Robin Briggs who described the process as 'a profound shift in conscisouness'. Gerhardt also says all personal and social development is linked to 'the capacity to pay attention', which is of course, a common definition of mindfulness.

I don't remember enough of my history studies to comment on how plausible the theories are, but I find it fascinating to imagine how Renaissance and enlightenment thinking, the rise in literacy and the industrial revolution might all have been sparked by a shift to greater mindfulness - that all of these developments were a product of Europeans beginning to relate to their minds in a different way. It is also perhaps interesting to speculate what further developments might ensue from a similar shift in consciousness now. Perhaps this time around we can make an evolutionary shift more consciously, using mindfulness and other practices to deliberately exercise the 'social brain', training ourselves to an ever more enlightened existence.

The Dalai Lama has joked that while westerners have made greater strides in exploring 'outer space', Tibetan buddhist practitioners, with the use of sophisticated mind training tools, have been way ahead in the exploration of 'inner space'. Perhaps now is the time when these two expressions of human creativity can be allied together for greater good.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Mindful Politics - part 2

Further to my post last Friday, it seems meditation practice might indeed have reached into the upper echelons of the British government - according to the Guardian, both new foreign secretary William Hague and new deputy prime minister Nick Clegg have practised Transcendental Meditation. According to the UK TM website, quoting interviews from the Times and Telegraph, Hague still uses it to help him keep calm and sleep better, while Clegg practised regularly for five years in his 20s but doesn't have the time anymore. No news yet on whether Gordon Brown might consider taking up a practice - could be useful for noticing when radio mics are still clipped on...

Mindfulness in the Military

One of the great advantages of mindfulness training is its capacity to help in almost any situation - as Michael Chaskalson puts it: "Is there anything worth doing that wouldn't go better if you practised mindfulness?" Relationships, work, studying, sport, or appreciating beauty - all are enhanced if we can pay genuine attention...

So what about war? A new study is being used to suggest that mindfulness training could help soldiers cope better during the stress of combat. The study found that the training improved US Marines' emotional regulation and working memory, and that mood, problem-solving abilities and emotional control all got better the more they practised mindfulness techniques.

Of course, one interpretation of this is that mindfulness might enable soldiers to manage difficult situations more reflectively - leading to less violence and suffering. Mindfulness has already been shown to be useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, common among soldiers returning from war zones. But one of the dangers of studying mindfulness in isolation - stripped of ethics - is that its capacity for training attention, improving decision-making and regulating emotion will be used for unethical ends. I'm reminded of a story told by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche about a man who thought he was being especially mindful when paying attention to shooting wildlife for sport. Historically, mindfulness - at least in its buddhist context - has been closely allied to ethics. It is meant to be practised within a framework of compassion and gentleness. Of course, gentleness and compassion are qualities it may be possible to cultivate and practice in a military context too, but there is a clear danger that unscrupulous aggressors could use mindfulness training to pursue selfish, murderous ends.

As the power of mindfulness practice becomes more widely known, we can expect it to be taken up in all kinds of contexts, and the danger will be that its power will be misused. And unless we are also willing to train in kindness and compassion, perhaps that misuse is inevitable?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Investigating The Buddhist Mindset

I've written a piece for the Guardian about the new Centre For Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin. The centre is the leading centre for neuroscientific research into mindfulness and meditation. You can read the piece here

Friday, 14 May 2010

Mindful Politics

For those of us used to a politics characterised by open warfare between entrenched tribes, the sight this week of two formerly opposing British party leaders agreeing to work together in a new coalition was surreal. Just a week previously they had been trying to discredit each other, suddenly they were laughing at each other's jokes.

In chapter one of the Mindful Manifesto, we envisage "a mindful parliamentary system where, instead of shouting at each other over the dispatch box, politicians worked together to find the most workable approaches to government." It's a bit premature to hope that this might be the kind of mindful politics we are espousing, with collaboration, careful reflection, common interest and kindness replacing crude competition and back-stabbing - the fact that the Clegg-Cameron 'love-in' was so gobsmacking is a sign itself of how far we have to go. But while it may have been prompted by political necessity, any increased co-operation seems a step in the mindful direction. And if the smiles, warmth and cross-party cameraderie do - as seems likely - sink under the pressure of cuts, crises and simmering division, at least we will have seen, for a few short hours, how a different kind of politics might look.

Several people with links to the last British goverment - the Labour peer Lord Layard and former Downing Street policy advisor Matthew Taylor among them, have recently enthused about the benefits of mindfulness training. Let's hope some key figures advising Messrs Clegg and Cameron are in the same place. Ten minutes of meditation before Cabinet sessions? It might be one way to stop the rot from setting in...